Football

Pele: Neymar can be better than Lionel Messi

Messi scored two in his first La Liga 2012/13 game (©GettyImages)
Messi scored two in his first La Liga 2012/13 game (©GettyImages).

When your widely regarded as the best player in history, your opinions tend to carry a bit more weight.

And while many former footballers, at least in the turgid world of British football punditry, tend to play it safe, others further afield opt for slightly more colourful observations.

For Brazil legend Pele, the media's insatiable appetite for opinion knows no bounds, and fortunately, the former-Santos star often obliges.

Scorer of more than 1,200 goals across a 21-year career, you would think Pele would be well qualified to impartially judge the respective merits of the world's best players.

But when it's a matter of national pride, of protecting the spirit of Samba football against the old enemy of Argentina, impartiality goes out the window.

For Pele, the latest product of the Santos youth academy, the prodigiously talented Neymar, has the capacity to surpass the achievements of Lionel Messi.

Messi is the greatest of football's current generation, for some he is even the greatest of all-time. For Neymar to even match Messi requires something almost unprecedented.

Football, and specifically La Liga, already enjoyes the biannual league battles between the world's two best players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi. Neymar has been linked with Barcelona - joining Messi would spoil Spanish football fans.

Ronaldo would likely be the consensus world's best player were he born in almost any other era. But the diminutive Argentinian casts a long shadow - at least long enough to keep Ronaldo in the dark.

Messi scored 82 goals for club and country last season, and with a pre-season break behind him - his longest holiday since establishing himself in the Barca team - he could be even better this year.

The Catalans played their first La Liga match yesterday evening, and of course, Messi scored two inside 15 minutes. The expected hat-trick - of which their were 10 last season - did not come however, and the next 75 minutes yielded nothing. Messi on one of his longest goal droughts then.

This is the level Neymar has to match. Not impossible, but improbable. Still, Pele thinks he can do it, while himself finding it too difficult to resist a dig at his own personal Argentine rival Diego Maradona.

"Maradona was a great player but he only had a left foot and wasn't a renowned header of the ball," said Pele. "Messi is almost a copy of him. That's why I think Neymar has the capacity to be better."

Aside from the petty criticism of Maradona, Pele pins Neymar hopes of filling out Messi's weaknesses. And in terms of completeness, Ronaldo does hold the edge over Messi. The Portuguese star has excellent attributes across the board, and a couple of world class ones thrown in.

In contrast, Messi is merely proficient at some facets of the game, but truly exceptional in others. And it's his brilliance in certain key areas, namely his laser-guided finishing, mesmerising close control and physics-defying low centre of gravity, that puts him ahead of Ronaldo.

Physically Ronaldo is almost the complete player, and Neymar can be similar, but question marks remain over temperament for both. No such concerns surround Messi, whose superhuman capabilities despite his relative size and weight emphasis his genius.

 

Pele seems to think Neymar can be better because of these perceived physical weaknesses. Find a player with Messi's ability with both feet who has the physique of Cristiano Ronaldo and can head the ball like Alan Shearer and you have the world's best player no question.

But it's hard to believe Neymar can be that player.

As for his heading, Messi answered that particular question in the 2009 Champions League final.

Pele is merely superimposing his own rivalry with Maradona onto another Brazil versus Argentina debate. The truth is Neymar is so far off Messi's level such comparisons barely merit consideration yet.

As successful as he has been in South America, a move to Europe will be the bigger test for Neymar. Matching Messi's achievements at a club as large as Barcelona is a formidable challenge, and he could get the opportunity - Barcelona are the club linked most often with the Brazil starlet.

Internationally, Messi is more vulnerable, and Neymar has the stage set for him at the World Cup in 2014.

But the Brazil star fluffed his lines at the Olympics this summer, and the pressure will be ten times as great on home soil in two years time. Still, the Messi versus Ronaldo debate will inevitably widen to include Neymar, especially once he moves to a European league.

Neymar still has plenty of catching up to do. By 20, Messi already had two La Liga titles and a Champions League, and was well on his way to breaking Barcelona's all-time scoring record by age 24.

As a result he legitimately takes his place alongside Maradona and Pele as one of the game's greatest ever.

So Pele's right - Neymar has the capacity to be better than Lionel Messi. But if he does so, he'll likely be the best player of all-time, better even than the great Brazil legend himself. Not that Pele's likely to admit it, even if Neymar does possess the right passport.

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Cristiano Ronaldo

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